This page is also available in: Español
Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
I was reading Numbers 5:11-31, the description of the experience of a wife whose husband suspects her of adultery. I found it strange and almost inhuman.
I have to agree with you; this is a strange regulation for which no exact parallel has been found in the ancient Near East. What some find very offensive is that it supposedly depicts women as less than human.
Briefly, this is what the passage regulates: A husband who suspects that his wife has committed adultery brings her to the priest. The priest takes water and places dust from the floor of the sanctuary in it, then pronounces and writes a curse against the wife and washes the written words into the water. The wife pronounces an oath and drinks the water. If she is guilty her abdomen will swell and she will probably become infertile. Other details in the text are likewise difficult to interpret.
Most scholars believe that the text describes a trial by ordeal. Ordeals were common in the ancient world; and the purpose was to determine guilt or innocence by divine intervention. It included a physical test whose results only the gods could control; e.g., a person had to carry in the hands a very hot object for a specific distance. Usually failure in the ordeal, that is, experiencing bad consequences of the test, was followed by a punishment determined by judges. Since in the case of the suspected adulterer the penalty was stipulated by God Himself, some scholars do not consider it to be an ordeal in the technical sense of the word. They prefer to call it instead a dramatized oath.
In explaining this, we have to look for the real intention of the law. It may surprise you to know that the primary role of this law was to protect not the rights of the husband but he rights and dignity of the woman. This is indicated by the following points:
1. The Woman Is Liberated From the Oppression of Her Husband: A jealous husband who suspected marital infidelity could have inflicted psychological and even physical abuse upon his wife. This legislation essentially tells the abusive and capricious husband, “Take her to the Lord or shut up,” thus limiting his power over her as a human being.
2. She Was Taken to God’s Court of Law: Instead of allowing men to determine whether the suspected adulterer was guilty or not, God Himself decided the case. She was in fact placed under divine protection against a legal system controlled by men who could have easily sympathized too much with her husband. She faced God as a human being with all her legal rights. Drinking water with dust from the holy sanctuary, symbolically containing the curse, signaled her total dependence on God as holy and just.
3. She and Her Husband Were Encouraged by the Law to Take the Case to the Lord: In the husband’s case, the law motivated him to follow this particular and unique legal procedure. If she was declared innocent by the Lord, there would be no further punishment or penalty. The wife was encouraged to participate, even if she had doubts, by the fact that it would bring an end to her husband’s accusations. Even if she were guilty, her fate was in God’s hand, and humans were not allowed to put her to death. Her sin would probably have resulted in sterility and separation from her husband, but not death.
4. The Woman Could Be Accused Only by Her Husband: In some laws of the ancient Near East, any member of the community could accuse a woman suspected of adultery. In this biblical legislation the right to press charges was restricted exclusively to the husband of the suspected adulterer, thus setting limits to the community’s social control over a woman or any attempt to victimize her.
This was a good law in a society in which women did not have as many rights as they have now in Western societies. The Lord addressed the Israelites where He found them and worked with them, trying to lift their social standards as much as possible within the cultural context in which they lived. This legislation demonstrates that God had, and still has, a high regard for women.